Law enforcement warms to social media

Shanna Devers, a secretary with the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office, displays a photo of an accident off Smith Creek Road in New Market that a Sheriff's Office member posted on Thursday. Shanna is one of several department members who routinely post department updates on their social media pages. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office is charging into the social media age with a more active Facebook page and a new commitment to Twitter.

Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said the goal is to forge deeper connections with the public at a time when more people are relying on new forms of communication for information on all kinds of subjects, including law enforcement.

“All of this is designed to have more contact with the people we serve and be more accountable,” Carter said. “The buzzword is transparency, improving our transparency. That’s what this is about.”

The postings run a gamut of news from feel good items about members of the Sheriff’s Office participating in worthy community causes to grittier material about accidents and criminal investigations.

On Wednesday, the items on the page included a tribute to Strasburg High School graduates who went on to serve in the military; a video about the Virginia Special Olympics Torch Run; a paragraph and mug shot about someone arrested and charged with obtaining money by false pretenses and forgery or uttering; and another brief description of the arrest of a defendant who was charged with interfering with the property rights of another.

The items include space for the public to make comments, many of which praise deputies for their work in arresting suspects or condemning those who have been charged and jailed. Many postings describe events that have occurred on the same day or even a few hours before.

Lauri Stevens, who runs a business in Maryland that trains and advises law enforcement officials on the uses of social media, said police agencies have been taking a keen interest in establishing a presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other tools of the information age.

Stevens estimated that more than half of law enforcement agencies throughout North America participate in social media in some way, a dramatic change from only a few years ago.

“It’s growing all the time,” Stevens said. “Back in 2009, when I started down this path, there were very few, and it was really slow to grow.”

Stevens said many police agencies set up social media accounts without much expert guidance, a practice that sometimes leads to disappointing results and missed opportunities for improved communications with the public.

Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly soured on Facebook and quit posting for a year out of frustration with snarky and false comments he received, sometimes in the middle of the night.

“You’re like a personal police officer because you’re on a Facebook page,” Sutherly said.

Sutherly said he reconsidered after deciding there were too many rumors and “people giving their own narratives” that were going unchallenged in social media.

He and the department resumed posting on Facebook about two months ago, but Sutherly still calls social media “a necessary evil,” a bow to the world as it is, not the way he would like to see it.

“It’s just how communication is done now,” Sutherly said, “especially with the younger generation. I think things are lost from not having face to face contact and written complaints and things, but the younger crowd, that’s how they’re raised. It’s ingrained in their DNA. It’s how they communicate, and we have to adapt to that.”

Carter is more upbeat as he plans deeper forays into social media.

The Sheriff’s Office has recently established a Twitter account that led to a “Tweet-Along” Sept. 3, which allowed members of the public to read descriptions of calls for service that evening. Carter said he is planning another Twitter event that will allow members of the public to ask questions of department members.

Farther into the future, the Sheriff’s Office may ditch its weekly online compilations of arrests from the previous week in favor of Facebook and Twitter posts of individual events as they happen, Carter said.

“It appears to me there’s a new standard of instantaneous expectations from the public to explain anything law enforcement is doing,” Carter said. “Social media gives us the opportunity to do that.”

Stevens, a former television reporter, said some law enforcement agencies welcome the chance to tell their own version of the news.

“Police are learning to be their own newsrooms,” Stevens said. “They’re learning that we don’t always represent them the way they like. Now they have the opportunity to do that, and the smart ones are figuring out how to do that.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.